The Power of Dance
Mind, body, emotion converge in Parkinson's program
Published Thursday, January 27, 2011 4:00 am
by Mary Beth Hislop

The audience that filled a large room last month at Sunnyvale’s Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center received an early Christmas present when approximately 25 patients and caregivers gave their first official performance as the pdDance group. The recital was the culmination of more than a year’s practice under the tutelage of professional dancer Damara Vita Ganley.

“It was incredibly celebratory,” Ganley said. “To be able to share that with family, friends and the general community was very special.”

More than 40 institutes and clinics across the country have established the Dance for PD program, founded more than 10 years ago by the New York-based Mark Morris Dance Group in collaboration with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group.

The group’s Web site ( explains the program’s basic premise: “Professionally trained dancers are movement experts whose knowledge is useful to persons with PD. Dancers know all about stretching and strengthening muscles, and about balance and rhythm. Dancers know about the power of dance to concentrate mind, body and emotion on movement because they use their thoughts, imagination, eyes, ears and touch to control their bodies every day.”

Although she tours both nationally and internationally as a professional dancer with the San Francisco-based Project Bandaloop and the Joe Goode Performance Group, Ganley said her weekly classes at the institute are her favorite activity.

“This is really important to me,” she said. “Some folks come in wheelchairs, others shuffling, others bent over – some just exhausted from the effort to tie their shoes. But for that hour and a half, they transform into dancers. They glide and twirl. They create and expand.”

Ganley said she was invited to train with the Mark Morris Dance Group to be able to offer services to Parkinson’s sufferers – patients in various stages of a disease that reduces the number of brain cells, and subsequently the chemical dopamine, which causes hand tremors, slowing movements, limb stiffness and loss of balance.

It is estimated that more than 1 million people in the United States suffer from Parkinson’s Disease. Various studies suggest that the concentration on movements helps patients with the disease and conclude that exercise is essential for neurological diseases.

“Seeing the dancers perform is an incredible experience – inspiring, to say the least,” said Jonathan Friedman, development director.

More than the camaraderie and socializing that patients and caregivers experience during dance sessions, a new focus emerges in their lives.

“The PD Dance class has brought me the abundance of fellowship, love and most of all, friendship,” said Myrna Hayasi, a 10-year PD patient. “In spite of our various limited physical shortcomings, I see smiling fellow students who inspire me. And I’m very grateful for all the volunteers, sponsors and staff I have met.”

Rather than dwelling on the negative effects of Parkinson’s – loss of ability to eat or drink without spilling because of tremors, loss of spontaneous movement, loss of balance – dancing becomes the patients’ expression of joy and celebration through the movements they can achieve, an exploration in the “abundance of space, rhythm, sound, movement and light,” Ganley said – finding abundance in the moment.

“For an hour and a half, folks who have Parkinson’s shed their limitations and experiment, express and expand their bodies, minds and hearts through dance,” she said.

“I feel an abundance of gratitude for my husband, John,” said Monica Cox, diagnosed with possible Parkinson’s two years ago. “Before PD, I could only see his self-centered side. Now I see a man who is patient, considerate, helpful, giving, supportive, loving, unselfish and caring.”

As one participant stated, “Life’s not about waiting for the storm to pass – it is about learning to dance in the rain.”

But the Dance for PD program isn’t merely for Parkinson’s patients, often accompanied by those who care for their daily needs.

“The uplifting feeling of movement and dance is transforming my awareness and connection with everyone,” said Delores Lameri, a volunteer caregiver with the institute.

More importantly, the dancing program is not just about the physical benefits of exercising the muscles.

“This is not a therapy, but training as artists,” Ganley said. “It dissolves the distinction between caregivers and PD patients.”

Currently, classes are free to participants – funded through private donors and sponsors. Ganley would like to add another class, if possible, that accommodates 25 additional Freds and Gingers.

Ganley said she measures participants’ successes by their attitudes – when she sees increased sensitivity, trust and joy.

“I’m not looking for physical improvement but improvement in the quality of their expressions,” she said. “We need that sort of celebration of our lives.”


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